26/11: What Mumbai Diaries gets right, and what it gets wrong
When the new web series, Mumbai Diaries 26/11 dropped last week, it wasn’t the first attempt to portray the horrific events surrounding the 2008 attacks on India’s financial capital when terrorists unleashed an attack that left 172 dead and changed India’s security outlook and apparatus forever
(Note: This article may have some spoilers)
When the new web series, Mumbai Diaries 26/11 dropped last week, it wasn’t the first attempt to portray the horrific events surrounding the 2008 attacks on India’s financial capital, when 10 Lashkar terrorists came in from the sea and unleashed an attack that left 172 dead and changed India’s security outlook and apparatus forever.
There have been several documentaries and films on the attack that saw hostage situations last for over 60 hours at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and the Trident Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai. In fact, the then Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh got into serious trouble for taking along film director Ram Gopal Verma on his first tour of the devastated hotels, soon after it was cleared of terrorists, doing a macabre reconnaissance of the attack sites even before the blood of the terrorists’ victims had been swept clean.
The new eight-part series streaming on Amazon, released just before the world marked 20 years since 9/11, however reminds us that we are still some distance away from accurately recreating real events for screen. While the filmmakers have given the usual disclaimers of the series “being inspired”, instead of being faithful recreation, it is important to remind ourselves where Mumbai Diaries stays true to real events and where it departs.
The portrayal of Mumbai Police
There are many images that are etched in our collective memory of the night of November 26, 2008, when news about the attack first emerged with the shootout at Cafe Leopold and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.
One such heartbreaking image is of the then anti-terror squad chief Hemant Karkare putting on his bullet-proof jacket, very shortly before he was gunned down by the terrorists. Those moments, where everyone from the beat constable to the top bosses of India’s security establishment were left stunned and scrambling to figure out a way to stop the terrorists as they went across Mumbai on a shooting spree, have been aptly covered.
My favourite image, which the show captured with a light touch, was one of National Security Guard (NSG) commandos arriving at the siege spot in a BEST bus. When we see the Mumbai police force struggling with their 303 rifles as compared to the machine guns used by terrorists, it is a reminder not just of the immense bravery that our frontline security personnel personify but also the trying circumstances they work under.
What is, however, a pure work of fiction, and only for dramatic effect, is the depiction of the slain officer’s wife going to the hospital to slap the doctor who treated the terrorist. In her book, one of the slain officers Ashok Kamte’s wife, Vinita, writes about Karkare’s pleas for reinforcement that went unheeded and how it took too long to take the bleeding officers to hospital.
Throughout the eight episodes, we see a middle-aged family man tracking the Mumbai siege on several devices and interacting with the attackers in real time, giving them updates on where the police entourage was approaching, when the NSG commandos reached Mumbai after finally being cleared by the crisis management group in Delhi.
When Indian investigators intercepted the conversations of the terrorists during the siege, they heard them speaking in Hindi to the terrorists. According to the charge sheet filed in the case, the handlers were operating from a base in Karachi where they were recruited by Lashkar’s Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi.
The TV show accurately shows how the handler motivates the terrorists with promise of eternal salvation and other rewards of this assignment.
The role of the media
Speaking of the role of the handler, the main conduit in the terrorists’ operations was the media, even if it was inadvertently so. In the TV series, this is portrayed in the character of the TV reporter Mansi Hirani, played by Shreya Dhanwanthary, who also played journalist Sucheta Dalal in a series on the Harshad Mehta scam. Just as Hirani is unscrupulous in her means to get breaking news about the terror attacks, the coverage was not one of Indian TV media’s shining moments.
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Many channels stayed live on the NSG landing on Nariman House, which the charge sheet documents as having helped warn the terrorists of the incoming raid. There are many other instances of the coverage directly helping the terrorists, which is now known from the exchange between the handlers and the attackers’ intercepts and saved for posterity in court and police documents. For instance, the attackers found out, through the media, where some hotel guests were hiding, information which proved to be fatal for some. Since then, many newsrooms have put in SOPs to never carry live footage of such operations and security agencies are also sensitised to tackle such possibilities but that wisdom came at too high a price.
The role of the hotel staff
For weeks and months after the attacks, newspapers and TV channels were full of tales of heroism displayed by ordinary citizens such as Taj’s general manager Karambir Kang. Kang lost his wife and both his children who were at the residential suite of the hotel, but those who survived narrated tales of how the hotel staff made sandwiches, or just took care of simple needs so that they could distract them from the horror that had struck the hotel. That aspect has been heroically covered by the series in the character Ananya Ghosh played by Tina Desai.
An account in the Harvard Business Review recounted how the hotel staff never abandoned the telephone operators’ posts, warned hotel guests to lock their doors and evacuated and shepherded guests to safety, instead of just saving themselves. The show is a homage to the numerous hotel staffers in both hotels who went out of their way to stay calm and save lives, something they would never have been trained to do.
The exaggerated depiction
During the terror strike, multiple locations, including Cama Hospital in Mumbai, were hit. However, the series takes the reality of what happened and turns it into an over-the-top drama. The storyline has nurses and attendants also being killed, when, in reality, it was two guards and policemen posted outside who were gunned down by the two terrorists Abu Ismail and Ajmal Kasab, the latter being the only terrorist who was held alive by the authorities.
Perhaps, this had something to do with the fact that the series was made during the pandemic and the filmmakers felt the need to pay tribute to health workers. However, this aspect of the show is the only one that feels exaggerated and over-the-top filmy. It is true that the hospital, which is mainly a maternity one, shut its ward doors so that the two terrorists who came in could only inflict limited damage. If anything, Cama Hospital’s story is one about the staff who were able to evade a major tragedy by showing presence of mind — they shut off their lights, shut all their doors and gates and asked everyone to just keep it down.
The truth is that a story such as 26/11 didn’t really need any dramatic embellishments. Even today, a plain retelling of what happened during those 60 hours is sufficient to capture the horror that all of India experienced.